Interview: Joseph Nye on Iran and the End of American Exceptionalism

Interview: Joseph Nye on Iran and the End of American Exceptionalism


Professor Joseph Samuel Nye Jr. is the former Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He currently serves on the Harvard faculty as a University Distinguished Service Professor. Along with Robert Keohane, he founded the theory of “neo-liberalism” in international relations, and more recently coined the often-used phrases of “soft power” and “smart power”. He is one of the world’s foremost intellectuals in the fields of political science, diplomacy and international relations. A 2011 TRIP survey ranked him as the sixth most influential scholar in the field of international relations in the last twenty years, and in October 2014 he was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the Foreign Affairs Policy Board.

following is the Interview of Mojtaba Mousavi with Dr. Joseph Nye which first published in the October issue of the Age of Reflection monthly. 

A quarter century has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall – November 1989. Many strategic analysts believe that the United States is still using the same pattern of collapse of communism in the East bloc to confront Iran. In the “Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics”, you have pointed to the American experience as well as the designation of the Marshall Plan as the means to undermine the Soviet soft power components. Do you believe that the same pattern can be adopted from the Cold War to undermine Iran’s soft power?

I do not think the situation of Iran today is like the Cold War. Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed from it own internal economic contradictions. The Marshall Plan was forty years earlier and designed to help West European economies recover from the devastation of World War II. The Soviet Union lost soft power after its invasions on Hungary and Czechoslovakia.  If there is a lesson in this for Iran, it is to free up its markets and society, and beware of interventions in neighboring countries.

This rationale has major drawbacks: essentially because Soviet Russia and Iran are profoundly different in not just their ideological makeup but the nature of their soft power. Iran’s Islamic Republic draws its narrative from Shia Islam, while Soviet Russia was born from atheist Marxism. Several critics of the US actually believe the country has ignored those fundamental and philosophical differences which exist in between Iran and Soviet Russia. How do you understand Washington’s position vis-à-vis Iran and are we seeing a repeat of the Cold War strategy here? In which case can this approach really serve the US?

 That is correct, but remember that Shia Islam is a minority and Iran should be wary of intervening in sectarian disputes. I do not see this as a repeat of a Cold War strategy. President Obama expressed an openness to dialogue right from the beginning of his presidency. Iran was initially reluctant to engage in that dialogue.

Although the Soviet Union collapsed and communism was to some degree defeated – Russia after all came to embrace capitalism, Moscow nevertheless preserved its political independence by remaining a non-aligned superpower. Is it not possible therefore to envisage that Iran will accomplish such feat – in that its goals might stray from the initial “revolutionary mindset” but still act an opposition to American imperialism? After all there are more than one way to resist and challenge.

 Capitalism in Russia is highly distorted by corruption. As I show in my book, “Is the American Century Over?” Russia is heavily dependent on one “crop” (energy) for two thirds of its exports. It also faces a demographic decline. This is not good, because declining powers often take greater risks such as Putin engages in now in his invasion of Ukraine and his intervention in Syria. I have no idea what the future of Iran will be, but it would be a mistake to model it on Russia.

President Richard Nixon called the US’ negotiations with Soviet Russia a “victory without war”. What President Nixon introduced and President Ronald Reagan followed into was a series of non-military actions which led to the ‘internal collapse’ of a country.President Barack Obama alluded a similar strategy, when,  in an interview  he argued that the path taken by both Nixon and Reagan vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and China inspired his own policies. Taking into account that his comments were made on the wake of the Iranian nuclear deal do you think the US is looking for “containment” instead of a real rapprochement? Is Obama replicating a Cold War scenario?

As I said above, I do not think Obama is following a Cold War strategy. My personal view is that the Middle East is involved in decades long series of revolutions, primarily in Sunni areas, which outsiders like the United States have little capacity to control.  In that sense, containing the spread of ISIS and its successors makes sense, but large scale intervention like the war in Iraq does not make sense. Where Iran will fit in all this will depend on Iran’s behavior.

Will this Iran nuclear deal lead to an increase of America’s footprint in the ME and therefore see Iran lose influence?

I do not think the Iran nuclear deal will increase the US footprint nor necessarily erode Iran’s influence.  Much will depend on how Iran chooses to behave.

Do you think US’ efforts to increase its soft power and smart power in Iran will lead to a change in narrative within the country, in that Iranians will no longer look on America with suspicion and animosity?

In general, increased contacts can reduce the stereotypes of hostility that can develop among countries. I hope with time this will be the case between the US and Iran.  Soft power can be a positive sum game from which both sides gain.

In a recent piece for National Interest, you wrote that the real challenge that the US is facing could be called “the rise of the rest”. Some authors such as Fareed Zakaria in his “Post-Americanism World”, are pointing to the same challenge. There are also philosophers who believe that America as “the” world superpower is coming to an end – For example American philosopher, Richard Rorty wrote in a piece for Decent magazine: “The American Century has ended (…) The spiritual life of secularist Westerners centered on hope for the realization of those ideals. As that hope diminishes, their life becomes smaller and meaner.” In view of such analysis, do you think the US can overcome those challenges stemming from its power and hegemony? Or is it the US has no clear awareness of such challenge? 

Americans have worried about their decline since the early days of the founding fathers centuries ago. In the last half century there have been several cycles of declinism. This tells you more about American psychology than it does about relative power positions of countries. In my book, I explain why I do not think the American century is over. At the same time, the rise of transnational challenges like climate change, cyber terrorism, and international financial stability will require cooperation among countries. In that sense, the rise of the rest as well as the new transnational challenges will require the US to work with others.  There will be no American imperialism or hegemony, but as the largest country, there will still be a need for leadership in organizing global collective goods.

In his September 16 address at a meeting with the IRGC commanders in Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said:  “cultural and political penetration is more dangerous than military and security threats.” You also referred to the ‘culture’ as one of the key elements of soft power – you mentioned both the US educational and popular cultures of America as powerful media – maybe here we could use the term Trojan horses. Iran’s leadership has repeatedly warned against such “cultural invasion”. Iranians have themselves naturally organized into movements to counteract Western cultural intrusion, thus manifesting a national trend. Do you see a situation where Iran would disappear to the US; or could it be that Iran will walk a different path than that of the Soviet Union?

Countries evolve over time, and I have no idea what future choices Iran will make, but I suspect that most of its future evolution will be determined from inside Iran.

Mojtaba Asiri

Mojtaba Molavi is Founder and Editor of

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